NZ Herald editorial: Sonny Bill Williams opens new fields of conscientious objection

The charmed life of Sonny Bill Williams continues to amaze New Zealand rugby followers. After an eight-month injury break, he took the field for the Blues on Saturday night for his first public appearance in 15-man rugby since the 2015 World Cup final, with tape over the BNZ's brand on his jersey.

Presumably it reflects his Muslim faith, which disapproves of charging interest on borrowed money, though as of yesterday Williams' only explanation was a tweet saying, "I'll clarify the situation during the week".

New Zealand Rugby has confirmed William has "lodged a conscientious objection in his contract to finance companies, banks, alcohol companies, tobacco companies and gambling companies".

The national rugby administration is reportedly unaware of any other players with such a wide-ranging clause in their contract.

It would be interesting to see if it would agree to such a clause for players not necessarily of the highest calibre but who nevertheless turn up week after week, giving reliable top-class performances.

But Williams should not be blamed if he can please himself how often he plays or whether he will wear the logo of one of the companies that pays his substantial wages. It is NZ Rugby that has indulged his demands and it has NZ Rugby that has made this rod for its back.

Williams has created a precedent that ultimately could make it more difficult for NZ Rugby to attract sponsors and lower the amounts they are prepared to pay. A sponsor is paying for its brand's exposure and if it cannot be guaranteed an appearance on all 15 jerseys on the field, it is receiving less value. A BNZ spokesman said the bank "has no issue" with Williams' action on Saturday saying, "He's entitled to have religious beliefs and customs around that and it's really between him and the Blues as to how that manifests itself."

Really? The bank has no concern that players can make its brand a subject of conscientious objection?

Objections to advertising alcohol, tobacco and gambling can be based on legitimate concerns for health, but banking and other financial services are necessities of economic life. Very little of the goods and services Sonny Bill Williams enjoys would be provided if the producers could not pay savers for the use of their capital. If Muslim countries did not find a way to reconcile their commercial needs with the Prophet's strictures against usury they would be very poor indeed.

Now NZ Rugby has accepted a religious objection to banking, there is no limit to the beliefs it may be asked to respect. We live in sensitive times. Many industries offend the environmental, moral, social and even nutritional beliefs of some. The All Blacks' jersey sponsor is in insurance, an industry that some may say prey on people's insecurities. And what of airlines with their carbon footprint? What of dairy products that take the milk of slaughtered calves?

There was a time rugby could satisfy a religious request with an exemption from Sunday play, and the only conscientious objection it faced from some players concerned apartheid. Now diversity rules and there is no limit to the strictures NZ Rugby might be asked to respect.

Respect would come easily of course if a conscientious objection prevented its holder from having anything to do with a sport that draws a good part of its sustenance from an offensive source. Otherwise any such player would seem to be just biting a hand that is feeding him.

- NZ Herald

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